Milwaukee designer gets album covers rocking

  • Article by: PIET LEVY
  • Associated Press
  • January 13, 2014 - 8:40 AM

MILWAUKEE — Last time we checked, the Mitchell Park Conservatory, a.k.a. the Domes, wasn't surrounded by water, a sandy beach or snowy peaks.

But through the power of Photoshop, and the craftsmanship and care of Milwaukee artist Daniel Murphy, the Domes have been transported to the middle of a surreal landscape for the cover of Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado's new album, "Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son," due out Jan. 21.

"(Jurado) had been talking about domes as a symbol," said Murphy, 35, who followed his wife, Amanda Keeler, to Milwaukee last July for her new digital media and media studies assistant professor position at Marquette University.

"A week after I moved here, I had been driving by these domes, so I went to take photos of the domes and built the artwork around them. ... I love to incorporate my surroundings. ... You'd be surprised by what you find in your own backyard."

Murphy, 35, has the kind of job artists, music lovers and practically anybody would love to have. As the graphic designer for the Secretly Label Group —a family of independent record labels including Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans and the Numero Group —Murphy has designed at least 300 album covers since 2006 for acclaimed artists such as Antony and the Johnsons, Dinosaur Jr., Major Lazer and Wisconsin acts Bon Iver and Volcano Choir.

Yes, he gets to work from home. And he gets to interact with the artists. He spent a weekend "of iChat and beers" with Justin Vernon, sending handwritten text samples back and forth for approval to be used as the lyrics and liner notes for the Grammy-winning "Bon Iver" album.

"Justin hated his handwriting and liked mine more," Murphy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ( "It's been a really surreal experience. When the record really took off and became this huge phenomenon, I was approached by many people to write things out in 'Justin's handwriting.'" Murphy's handwriting, as Vernon, is even permanently inked on some die-hard fans' bodies.

Watching Murphy geek out over his design work in his home office in Washington Heights, it's clear this is a life he loves. But it's not one he designed for himself.

"I had no skills whatsoever," he admitted. He went to school at Indiana University to study journalism.

But Murphy possessed something that has paved a professional path for countless others before him: a connection. He was friendly with the co-founders of Secretly Canadian and did some production work for them while in school. Then, after working for the Indianapolis Business Journal for 18 months, he rejoined the label in 2002, working primarily in production.

"I was the third hire maybe, and now the company has almost 60 employees and offices in New York, London, Austin, Texas, and the home office still in Bloomington," Murphy said.

The Secretly label let Murphy take a shot at design for the boxed set by Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale; "New York in the 1960s" followed a stark aesthetic that had been established by previous Cale releases. Then, in 2006, given the growing output from the labels, Murphy was asked to become a full-time designer. Before then, most of that work was being handled by Secretly Canadian co-founder Ben Swanson and Jagjaguwar founder Darius Van Arman.

"I was terrified," Murphy said. "I really had never done anything that had been put out there as my work for public consumption."

Although Murphy was an unproven artistic talent, he was a good fit for other reasons, said Nick Blandford, managing director of the Secretly Label Group.

"In the earlier days of the company, we always valued building and teaching from within," Blandford said. "Daniel and a few other people who have been here for a while had the opportunity to learn a lot on the job. There's a lot of comfort recognizing when people are our type of people and fit well, especially as a small, growing company."

Van Arman worked by Murphy's side for his first official design job, for the album "Beast Moans" from the dormant indie-rock supergroup Swan Lake, featuring Dan Bejar (Destroyer, the New Pornographers), Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade) and Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes).

"He gave me a very good sense of expectations of quality level and the precision that goes into it," Murphy said. "From there I had a good idea of how much time and attention to detail would be required."

"In a best-case scenario, there'll be a unified idea where a few tweaks are made, everything is approved and we go from there," Murphy said. "In some cases, we may go through 30 or 40 different concepts. ... Most of the time the artist has a friend or photo they want to work with. Management may supply it, or we as a label might hire a photographer.

"I want the records to look timeless and classic," Murphy continued. "I don't want you to look at a record and know immediately what decade it's from or which record label put it out. ... There's no overarching aesthetic."

But Murphy still has one golden rule: respecting an artist's vision over his own.

"I love a designer who doesn't have an ego," Kyle Frenette, Vernon's manager, said of Murphy. "You can say anything to (Murphy) and he'll take it and adjust it accordingly and give you as many options as possible to really capture your artistic vision."

Largely thanks to the Bon Iver albums, which were both certified gold last year by the Recording Industry Association of America, Murphy's output has grown considerably; these days, he's working on 10 to 15 albums at one time. Time permitting, he's still open to working with local bands as a freelance designer or consultant.

Despite the workload, Murphy has yet to run out of creative momentum.

"Sometimes I think people can look at a photograph on an album cover and say, 'That's easy,'" Blandford said. "But when you get into the liner notes and text treatment and type of paper stock used, and the configuration for the paper stock, there are a lot of small decisions and piecing together of small elements that requires a great eye for detail. And Daniel has an excellent eye in that sense."

"It's just gratifying to know I've contributed to something that will always be out there," Murphy said. "This body of work, that means a lot to people."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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